What Academics Can Do Now to Prevent a Coup Later

The U.S. presidential election is five weeks away and there are worries that Donald Trump will not leave office should he lose, or that he will interfere with or stop the counting of votes if he believes continuing counting would reveal he lost.

As Barton Gellman writes in The Atlantic, some people have “a concern, unthinkable for presidents past, that Trump might refuse to vacate the Oval Office if he loses” but “they generally conclude, as Biden has, that in that event the proper authorities ‘will escort him from the White House with great dispatch.'” That’s not the worst case scenario, though:

The worst case is that he uses his power to prevent a decisive outcome against him. If Trump sheds all restraint, and if his Republican allies play the parts he assigns them, he could obstruct the emergence of a legally unambiguous victory for Biden in the Electoral College and then in Congress. He could prevent the formation of consensus about whether there is any outcome at all. He could seize on that un­certainty to hold on to power.

Daniel Hunter at Waging Nonviolence says we should call such a turn of events a “coup”:

One reason to use the language of a coup is that people know it’s wrong and a violation of Democratic norms—even if they’re not familiar with the exact definition of a coup. Language like “election tampering” or “voter suppression” signal deterioration of the democratic process. But if we get ourselves into a coup situation—like where Trump just won’t go—we need to help people help our country move into a psychic break.

We know it’s a coup if the government:

  • Stops counting votes;
  • Declares someone a winner who didn’t get the most votes; or
  • Allows someone to stay in power who didn’t win the election.

These are sensible red lines that people can grasp right away (and that the majority of Americans continue to believe in).

People who do power grabs always claim they’re doing it to save democracy or claim they know the “real” election results. So this doesn’t have to look like a military coup with one leader ordering the opposition to be arrested.

If any of those [red lines are crossed] we have to declare loudly and strongly: This is a coup.

Of course, as Hunter says, “the best way to stop a coup is to not have one.”

Perhaps a post about taking pre-emptive measures to prevent a coup in the United States seems like an overreaction. I hope that it is. But we won’t know until later, so it’s worth asking what we academics can do now to help lower the chances of it happening.

Here are some possibilities, in part based on Hunter’s advice:

  1. In discussing the possibility of a coup and what to do about it, emphasize “widely shared democratic values” and widely shared epistemic practices, not the character of specific individuals. Resisting a coup will require cooperation among people with differing political views. This speaks in favor of (a) talking about common ideals traditionally expressed about the United States and its founding and (b) reminding people of the importance we place on evidence for making extraordinary accusations. It speaks against (c) bundling our rhetoric of coup-resistance with more contentious, divisive, or partisan issues and (d) villifying particular politicians in ways that will generate uncooperative defensiveness among those who supported them.
  2. Talk with friends, family, and contacts on social media about the possibility of a coup, raising awareness of the threat but doing so in a way that keeps 1, above, in mind. Try to get people thinking about what they will do if the election is thwarted or its results ignored.
  3. Set aside time to talk about the possibility of a coup during a class meeting with your students. There is probably a way for professors in any discipline to plausibly make the subject a relevant deviation from the planned syllabus if one needs to, but some may not feel they need the cover of relevance to bring it up, considering its importance. In discussing this issue with your students, keep in mind 1, above. The discussion need not involve “indoctrination.”
  4. Consider letting your students know in advance that you will not penalize them should they miss class for the sake of protesting a coup.
  5. Discuss with your colleagues how you should respond to a coup, and consider committing to a plan for what to do in regards to work.
  6. Talk with supervisors and university administrators now about the possibility of a coup and faculty plans in response. Try to get a public statement of a proactive commitment to democratic processes from your university president as well as information about how they might respond to faculty, staff, and student actions.
  7. Plan for peaceful resistance that conveys respect for democratic norms and stability. Hunter notes that when it comes mass actions, “historically, whichever side resorts to violence the most tends to lose. In a moment of uncertainty, people pick the side that promises maximum stability, respects democratic norms and appears to be the safer bet. It’s a contest of who can be the most legitimate. Mass resistance to coups wins by using walk-outs and strikes, refusing orders and shutting down civil society until the rightful democratically-elected leader is installed. For mass movements to succeed against coups, they should refuse to do violence to the other side.”
  8. Write publicly about the possibility of a coup and what is at stake for general audiences (again keeping in mind the advice in 1, above). Consider trying to place your writing in local newpapers or make appearances on local news outlets, rather than just big national platforms or discipline-specific venues.

Discussion and further suggestions are welcome, as are more specific talking points, strategies, lesson plans, action plans, and so on. Comments to the effect of “nothing we do will make a difference” are not. We know that the chances of any of our efforts making a difference is small. But it may nonetheless be worth making an effort if the stakes are high enough.

I made the above graphic. You’re welcome to download it, share it, print it on signs or bumper stickers or buttons, if you think it would be helpful.

Click on these for large versions of the graphic for signs (you may need to then open image in new tab to enlarge it to its full size):

Or on these for smaller versions for Instagram:

Or on these rectangular versions optimized for Facebook, and which should work well on Twitter, too:

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